Black honey bees and yellow honey bees

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice | Posted on 19-12-2011

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I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise, but he delivers a great line in A Few Good Men (courtesy of Aaron Sorkin, of whom I’m a very big fan indeed). While Demi Moore’s character is flapping over minutiae, all the while missing the bigger picture, he deadpans: “Ah, I get it now. It was professor plum, in the library, with the lead pipe!”

I had a similar moment of epiphany with the colony last May: “Aa-ah, it’s the queen. She’s not laying, because she’s knackered!”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the signs were all there. She did look …well, dishevelled. And I guess you would too if your life consisted of a free-for-all gangbang followed by years in the dark giving birth thousands of times a day. Although I’d daubed her in blue marker last year I suspect I still wouldn’t have found it difficult to spot her if I hadn’t. For weeks she remained rooted to frames five or six, wandering around aimlessly, like a frail aunt in her dressing gown. Her offspring meanwhile, (in an odd reversal from my own experience) busied themselves filling the empty cells around her with food.

Of course hindsight being what it is, I didn’t actually cotton on to any of this until I saw the first queen cell. Which I promptly tore down. News of my action was met with much teeth-sucking by experienced colleagues. A week later – thankfully – there were two more queen cells, both uncapped. By this time I’d got the message. I marked the frame, replaced it in the brood chamber, and tip-toed away.

A new queen eventually emerged and, for nearly two months, co-existed beside the old queen. Having briefly established that her royal newness was indeed laying, I largely left her to get on with it. Running a business got in the way of running an apiary across much of the summer. Hive ‘inspections’ consisted largely of keeping an eye on the entrance to see what colour bees emerged from the new brood.

Yellow honey bees

My bees - Apis Mellifera, but more yellow than black

All my queens to date (four in total – although only three have been documented here so far) have been the product of swarms. Although presumably all of the species Apis mellifera, they’ve been mongrels. Among the local population of honey bee mongrels however, I have noticed that there appear to be two distinct sub-species: ‘yellow’ honey bees and ‘black’ honey bees. Both types have black and yellow bands on their abdomen. The ‘yellow’ bees just have slightly wider yellow bands while the ‘black’ bees have slightly wider black ones. It’s only a matter of emphasis, but when viewed side-by-side you can see a distinct difference in colouration.

As I seem never to tire of saying, being a novice beekeeper is a lot like being a novice parent. There are manuals, but most of what you learn comes from actually interacting with the little darlings – both your own and the offspring of a whole host of new friends that seem to come with them. And, like parents, you almost can’t help yourself from degenerating into a little competitive beekeeping when it comes to comparing notes.

Black honey bees with queen in centre

A captured swarm (with queen in centre) - more black than yellow

“Gosh, my bees are so docile”, you find yourself boasting, “they’re an absolute doddle to handle.”

“You’re so lucky”, will come the reply, “mine fly everywhere, it makes extracting honey every few weeks a real nightmare.”

Now the truth about this exchange is that there isn’t a beekeeper anywhere who wouldn’t swap docile bees for high yielding ones at the drop of a hat. My bees have always been docile and, perhaps as a consequence, have so far produced b****r-all in the way of honey. By comparison, opening up my friend Michelle’s hive is like entering a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night, and ordering a cocktail. This summer it produced so much honey, so fast, she nearly ran out of supers. I have ‘yellow’ bees. Michelle’s are ‘black’. I wanted black bees.

As my lovely new chocolate-coloured queen began to make her mark on the colony I started to see newly hatched furry bees and squinted hard to determine whether they were of the lighter or darker persuasion. Unfortunately there was no mistaking it. They were distinctly yellow. Damn. It seems that what the yellow bees lack in temperament they make up for in other departments. Time for a little family planning in 2012, I think.

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Advice on beekeeping advice

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee diseases, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 14-06-2011

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Beekeeping advice

"Bless him, he's doing his best. But perhaps if he just left us alone..." (Pic: Subbotina Anna)

Got a bit of a mauling on the Beekeepers’ Forum. Essentially, I was reprimanded for not reading the textbooks properly and for medicating my colony without proper evidence of disease or infestation. Some of it I’ll take as fair comment, some of it as a reminder of the perils of ‘diagnosis by forum’.

I opened the hive four weeks ago and found – surprise, surprise – a sealed queen cell. I removed the tray of Apiguard and the temporary solid floor and found – surprise, surprise – no sign of varroa. Not-a-one, in seven days. Which I recognise wasn’t to say they weren’t there, just that I clearly wasn’t overrun with mites. (Either that or they were really good at climbing back onto the frames). No balaustium / spider mites either. And no wax moth… although I rather forgot to look for them (it’s so hard to remember everything).

As for the nosema, since I don’t have a microscope we’ll probably never know. Robert said that treating with Fumidil B would do no harm regardless. The Beekeepers’ Forum begged to differ.

So I found a single queen cell and I tore it down. That was a mistake too, apparently. Trouble is, Ted Hooper said you should have a plan for these situations, but I couldn’t quite remember what my plan was. I was pretty sure it involved tearing down the first lot of queen cells, but then I only had one. Then again (I reasoned after the event) my worker bees may have been inhibited from creating more by the smell of Apiguard.

Anyway, I was concerned that the old queen – still very much alive and present – might kill the virgin new queen, or else slink off with a batch of workers and leave the colony even weaker. Which, in the cold light of day, I now accept wasn’t very logical. (Old queen knackered, workers create new queen to ensure survival, then …bugger off with old knackered queen)? Nevertheless, I was sufficiently concerned to commit my fears to a new forum thread, only to find that I’d placed myself at the centre of a hail of criticism. I should read up about swarming and supersedure I was told (agreed, I should). It’s all there in Ted Hooper, I was told. Er, no it wasn’t. Not what I was seeing. I’d riffled backwards and forwards through its pages looking for relevant passages. Bits sounded familiar, but nothing covered my exact circumstances.

Which is not to condemn the beekeepers that offered their ha’penny worth on the Beekeepers’ Forum. They were all trying to help, and I appreciate that. But this was a classic example of why I set up a novices’ beekeeping blog in the first place. Because no two colonies are alike, and because no text book can cover every eventuality.

Anyway that was four weeks ago, since when I’ve hatched a new queen and acquired a second colony. And while I haven’t done a particularly good job of writing about either I have at least begun to appreciate that, when it comes to beekeeping advice, there are usually several good ways of achieving the same objective, and that invariably one of them is to do absolutely nothing.

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A simple home-made bee feeder, plus finding and marking queen bees

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 07-10-2010

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27 September: It takes me until a week Monday to inspect the bees again. The weather and domestic routine get in the way over the weekend, so I come home at lunchtime. I’m a little concerned about how few bees there were around the entrance on both Saturday and Sunday evening. Granted it was cold (10 degrees Celsius) and wet (light drizzle) but even when I’d boldly stepped right in front of the hive there had been no reaction. Have they all gone?

Home-made contact bee feeder

"You spoil those bees": Tesco Premium Chewy Caramel 1 litre ice cream tub makes an ideal contact feeder

Mrs S – who I’m delighted to say has appointed herself chef to the bees – is out, so I make up the bee feeders myself, spilling granulated sugar across every surface in the kitchen as I do. For the mini-nuc I’ve used an empty round 1 litre ice cream tub with a dozen 2mm holes drilled in a circular pattern in the lid. Although it spills a little when you invert it, it quickly stops and the bees are then able to feed from the holes. In this case it also helps that the lid has a raised lip. When placed upside down over a hole in the top of the nuc-box it leaves the perfect gap for workers to crawl around underneath, safe from robbing insects.

Although it isn’t as chilly as it has been, it still isn’t exactly warm either, so I’ve decided to get in and out fast. Just long enough to find the queen and establish whether or not she’s laying.

“In and out fast,” is easy if you have an established track-record for finding queens, but of course I don’t.  So it’s something of a relief to find her safe, well and curiously unmarked on the third or fourth frame. Robert had said that the marker pen ink might come off.

Baldock-type queen marking cage

A queen marking cage. Those spikes are sharp. (Image courtesy of Michael Jay Beekeeping Supplies)

I then perform a classic beekeepers’ shuffle as, with one hand balancing the frame on the side of the hive and one eye on the moving target that is my queen, I fumble around with my other hand in the tool box searching for the press-in cage, using my spare eye to ensure that in finding it I don’t skewer a finger on its sharp spikes. Cage located, I gingerly place it over the queen and press down. Probably not hard enough, as in attempting to back out she gets her wings tangled in the mesh. With worker bees piling in on top I lift it up gently to free her before pressing down again.  At this point the sensible thing would be to shake all excess bees off the frame, but of course I don’t do the sensible thing. Instead, I use a finger to tackle the scrum of worker bees intent on piling in on top of the cage and their captured queen. As I push them aside I hold my marker pen aloft, ready to lunge. In fact it takes several lunges. So many that by the end of it the poor mite looks as if she’s been dipped in blue paint. Ah well, at least I should be able to spot her in future.

The mini-nuc is bound to present less of a challenge, I reason. There are fewer frames and fewer bees, after all. Robert rather mischievously refused to mark the queen when he left it, saying that I needed to get used to finding her. Bugger that. After four weeks of not finding my queen I’m ready to attach a blue flashing light to her if I have to.

The first thing that strikes me is how few bees there are. At least they don’t look like they’re clinging on for dear life anymore. Two of the original frames contain capped and uncapped larvae, and while I can’t see properly in the poor light, I suspect also contain eggs. But apparently no queen. What were the odds.

With little doubt that she really is there, but hiding, there’s nothing for it but to go backwards and forwards from one frame to the next until I find her. When I do I waste little time. I have the cage down on top of her in a flash, and while I’m spared the rugby scrum of workers I’m afraid I don’t spare the pen. She emerges marked and only marginally less blue than her next door neighbour. Shame, because she really was a very nice hazel colour underneath…

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Creating a new colony with an unmated queen, introducing a mated queen to an established colony, and I get a second colony

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Apiguard Thymol, Bee feeders, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 05-10-2010

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18 September, 10am: Robert calls, out of the blue, asking for directions. He’s coming over. It’ll be the first time he’s seen the place. “Can’t you just tell me what to do over the phone?” I squeak. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble.” I can’t very well add, “…And I don’t want you standing over me while I balls things up” so stifle the urge.

He says it’s too complicated. It will take less time to actually do it. He hangs up. I bark at Mrs S and the kids. “Robert’s coming!” I feel like adding, “Get up, paint the house, vacuum the carpets, mow the lawn, start baking,” and only barely stifle the urge. Mrs S gives me an understanding look. The kids ignore me.

He arrives shortly after midday and steps out of the car with a lit smoker, which is a pretty neat trick. With saturation coverage on TV of Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK it’s hard not to draw a parallel.

Pointing to where the hive is I help him carry his tools and a mini-nuc to an area just around the corner from it. Then we lift the lid off the super and discard the second Apiguard tray which has been in there for two weeks. The tray’s nearly empty. The rapid feeder I placed alongside it is also empty so I run inside and ask Mrs S to fill it.

We set about finding the queen. Thankfully it doesn’t take long. The last thing I did before closing the hive was mark her with a blue dot. I’m still taken by how small and dark she is.

Robert scoops her up and puts her into a traveling cage. Then he brings the mini-nuc round and sets it down beside the hive. He opens it to reveal that it contains only frames – no bees. Taking a couple of frames from my hive he swaps them with two from the mini-nuc. They’re covered in bees. He then picks up another frame from my hive and shakes more bees from it into the mini-nuc. The more quick-witted among them immediately high-tail back home next door, but enough stay to provide the basis for a new colony. I still have a few drones, so we carefully pick out five or six and drop them in. Finally, he picks up the traveling cage with my unmated queen and carefully places her onto the side of a frame before quickly sealing the box.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Should you treat with Apiguard when your colony is requeening?

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Apiguard Thymol, Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 04-10-2010

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Early September: Turns out the short answer is, “no”. Sadly I only find that out a day or two after I’ve placed a tray of Apiguard in my (now empty) super. I discover several posts on the subject on the rather excellent Beekeeping Forum. Apparently the smell of Thymol drives them nuts (the bees that is, not the members of the Forum). There’s a chance that my new queens will each hatch in turn, take a whiff, and pack their bags. Fire off an email to Robert. His response is: “You’ve started, so you must finish.”

Beehive frame packed with worker bees

Well you try spotting a queen among this lot

There also appears to be a lively debate online about whether or not one should tear down some of the queen cells. Cue another email to Robert: “No”.

At my next inspection I spend at least half an hour searching for a queen. All bar one of my queen cells appears to have hatched. I say “appears” because I daren’t shake the frames in case any of the new queens drop off. So instead I perform my inspection with hundreds of bees crawling all over the frames, my hands, arms, and veil positioned around two inches from the brood cells. Later Robert tells me that more than likely the first queen to hatch tore down the other queen cells, killing her younger sisters in the process. Either way I never find a queen. So here we go again.

I let us each retreat to our own corner for ten days before going back in. It’s late in the year, the weather’s deteriorating and there are precious few drones left knocking about. The odds are stacked against me. Even if I find the queen she may still not have mated, but the view is that find her I must. It’s therefore with huge relief that I spot her scrabbling about on Robert’s marked frame. She’s quite small and very dark, and her abdomen doesn’t have that swollen look I’ve seen on other queens. I’m guessing that’s because she’s still a virgin. Given that she’s had nearly two weeks to do something about it, it seems likely she’s going to remain one. There’s no sign of eggs.

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Is September too late to requeen?

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 03-10-2010

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I got my very first colony at the beginning of July. By mid-month I’d already lost my queen.

Beekeeper beginner

Getting started: I'm smiling, but minutes later I accidentally squash my queen

I think I must have accidentally squashed her. Sadly, in the brief time I had her I never saw her, despite poring over each frame on every inspection. She came as part of a swarm from Robert, a local and highly experienced beekeeper. I couldn’t even give her a decent burial. I never found the body. I just guessed that she wasn’t there because capped and hatched larvae wasn’t being replaced by fresh larvae. I never saw any eggs either. Again, I guessed that they were there once because I could see small larvae growing into large larvae. Hardly an auspicious start.

For four weeks I did nothing, hoping first that I was wrong, then that no-one would notice, and finally that the bees themselves wouldn’t notice. I did keep telling Robert that I thought I’d killed my queen. He kept telling me that I hadn’t necessarily killed her – I’d lost her. I’m still not sure whether he was being kind, or whether it’s considered impolite to mention homicide in beekeeping circles.

I consulted Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey, the beekeeping bible. Frustratingly, it mentioned that squashing one’s queen is not uncommon amongst beginners, but then didn’t spell out what you’re supposed to do about it. I did gather however, that if I could get a frame of eggs and larvae from another colony and introduce it into mine, then the chances were that my desperate bees would create new queen cells.

Back I went to Robert. Borrowing a mini-nuc for the day I swapped a single frame of mine for one of his with eggs and young larvae. Then I stuck a drawing pin in the top and placed the new frame in the centre of my brood chamber. By now my bees had been without a queen (and fresh brood) for four weeks. Would it be too late? Seven days later I had the answer: 18 new queen cells front and back.

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